“When you do things with your hands it heals you in places lower than where you cry from”
T is a short film from Keisha Rae Witherspoon, a filmmaker and creative director of the Third Horizon Caribbean filmmaking group based in Miami, Florida. T centers around the artists that are getting ready for what is known as the T-ball, a gala of sorts where people in the community who have passed away are commemorated through artwork on T-shirts and other artistic works. The T-ball is a celebration of people who have passed on to new life outside of this one and the film itself is one that grapples with how we all navigate the world after loved ones have passed. The ball is an extremely colorful night that carries themes of acceptance of new lifetimes. More than anything, what oozes out of every second while watching this piece is this confidence that past gives light towards futures unforeseen.
Across the film’s runtime, we are allowed us to walk with three people: Dimples, Tahir, and a man whose name is never given. Dimples is a seamstress whose home is both an alter and workshop in remembrance of her son, Jasper. Jasper was a painter and these works strewn across the walls create a prismatic overstimulation inside her four walls. We meet her preparing a dress made completely out of potato chip bags, a common snack for Jasper back in the day. Through our time with her she smiles fondly on memory of her son with such a warm that without a second thought you feel a sense of place and home around her. Tahir and the man create a similar atmosphere; giving such an interiority to the complex textures of their everyday that you feel a sense of closeness to each of these people over only a runtime of about 14 minutes.
But it’s the blowback you receive so often in this film that transcends T by forcing a third thought that you actually don’t know these people and whatever sense of binary joy you initially received is so much more complex. Throughout the film, the connections we genuinely make with these people are complicated with actions that morph us as viewer into fifth wall observers. We realize that we aren’t following these people around and that there’s camera operators between us and the subjects. We are flown back into our own bodies and have to reckon with the accountability of ourselves that we so often give to documentary subjects in creating a false sense of kinship beside people we’ve only placed our eyes on for 4 minutes at this point. This is most seen with Dimples and the man whose name is never given.
The man opens his scene jovially announcing to the camera “Welcome to African America!” alongside a dance and a smile that could warm a cold winter’s night. This warmth is immediately chopped down with a blank stare, making you unsure if this a game he’s playing to get us to laugh or if he’s really not that jazzed about seeing us in his space. As his scene carries, on we peer into vignettes of him alongside his children and friends showing a box full of T’s; T-shirts acting as ephemeral tombstones for the passed away with printed faces, carefully crafted text and dates of a homecoming and home going. During this moment we think we’re sharing with the man and his friend the man asks us, “what y’all really here for anyway?… what y’all really wanna see?”. While his friend continues to show us even more T’s he asks his friend why he’s giving so much to these people and realizes he’s changed his mind about this whole thing. We don’t see the man again.
Near the end of the film, Dimples takes us down a hallway to a back room; a sacred place where she begins a ceremony in reverence to her passed child. As the camera follows closely behind her and by the time we reach the doors entrance, Dimples tersely says “We don’t come past here”. Dimples herself begins her journey in her own temple while we wait on the sidelines realizing that this moment is not for us.
These moments (and more throughout the film) implicate the viewer to understand that we are but an intrusion; onlookers in a space that is not ours to call our own as much as we subconsciously believe it to be through the power of cinema. Quite often we have a voyeuristic renarrativization of lives not ours. Does this film center around Black Death or Black Life? What are we really here for anyway? What do we really want to see?
T is currently playing at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and the Third Horizon Film Festival begins on February 6, 2020 in Miami, Florida.